With the reign of Madame de Maintenon, came an era of unprecedented dullness at Versailles. The glorious fêtes were long passed and grand balls were reserved for weddings. Even the weekly, Appartement was only seldom visited by the king himself who instead spent his evenings with Maintenon. The combination of the new mistress' influence over the king and the disastrous finances (as a consequence of several military failures) meant that Versailles had little attraction for the young aristocrats who could not claim a position in a royal household.
Anne Louise Bénédicte de Bourbon-Condé was amongst those who had had enough of the austere atmosphere at the king's court. She had been married to the king's illegitimate son, the Duc du Maine, and was therefore known at court as the Duchesse du Maine. By 1700, her husband purchased the Château de Sceaux which Louise Bénédicte immediately took for her own residence.
Once she had properly refurnished the château (at a cost of 80.000 livres), she set about creating her own little court.
The nature of life at Sceaux baffled people. On one hand, the Duchesse du Maine gathered free-thinkers in large numbers. For anyone interested in 18th century philosophy, the company was an absolute treasure trove: Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Hénault, Cardinal de Bernis and the Comte de Caylus were frequent visitors. Hénault himself enjoyed his trips there. As he put it:
"If the court is less brilliant, it was not any less agreeable; persons of consideration and wit made up its society"
Future salonnieres were found amongst the guests as well. Madame de Deffand was a guests there in her youth which could have given her some inspiration for her own, later salon. This could give the impression of an impressive salon where great ideas were discussed. However, Sceaux had another side to it - one that included lavish and seemingly ceaseless parties.
|Anne Louise Bénédicte|
The luxurious surroundings provided amble opportunity for entertaining both indoors and outdoors. Inside, balls and theatricals followed each other in hot succession. Even Voltaire's own plays were performed there; in 1750, he wrote the play "Zaire" while at Sceaux and it had its premiere there. Famous actors and actresses were equally induced to take part in the theatricals. The celebrated Mademoiselle Desmarets would travel to Sceaux, where she would partake in plays - despite being officially retired. Similarly, dancers from the Académie de Danse were summoned on a regular basis.
Anne Louise Bénédicte herself was fond of taking to the stage. Despite the very talented, professional actors and dancers, she insisted on playing the principal parts - to the despair of her husband. This was a time when private theatricals were perfectly acceptable but to perform in front of commoners (such as the professionals) were shameful.
Outside, the park and the château could be illuminated to spectacular effect. If that was not enough to entertain the guests, then elaborate firework displays certainly would.
Anne Louise Bénédicte understood the importance of spreading the word of the exclusive society she kept. In 1712, ordinary Parisians could indulge their imaginations by reading about the "Divertissements de Sceaux". Certainly, these divertissements were many and lavish. Besides the countless balls and plays, there were regular gambling parties, poetry readings, feasts, ballets and even demonstrations of new inventions.
It was not uncommon for the hostess to add something spectacular to her entertainments. The feasts could be given a specific theme; as a result, various odd figures appeared. For instance, Druids, knights, cyclops and even planets were included in the festivities. These fantastical elements were chosen on purpose by Anne Louise Bénédicte. It was intended that life at Sceaux should be almost like living in a fairy-tale.
Much like the early fêtes at Versailles, those at Sceaux aimed at using mythology and history to create allegories which would celebrate Anne Louise Bénédicte herself. It worked - she would soon be known as the "divinity of Sceaux".
The festivities often continued throughout the night. Anne Louise Bénédicte herself suffered from insomnia which has led many subsequent authors to claim that any type of rest was looked upon with disdain. It was this idea which gave birth to the Grandes Nuits de Sceaux: night time celebrations which were met with a mixture of applause and ridicule - and exhaustion by those present with a normal sleep schedule.
It says something about the society at Sceaux, that it managed to survive the arrest of Anne Louise Bénédicte in 1719. While her political ambitions cooled following her release, she would continue to hold court until her death in 1753.
As any proper court with respect for itself, Sceaux became a hotbed of political intrigue; this only increased towards the last years of Louis XIV. The Duc du Maine was the favourite of Madame de Maintenon and she used her influence to heap as many favours on him as possible. It was widely expected that when the king died, he would share the regency with the Duc d'Orléans - which was originally the plan, envisioned by Louis XIV. As such, Louise Bénédicte would be one of two leading ladies in France. Furthermore, as the Duchesse d'Orléans was another illegitimate child of Louis XIV, Anne Louise Bénédicte (herself born legitimate) would - in the eyes of many courtiers - be the leading lady.
It is hardly surprising then, that the other illegitimate children of Louis XIV gathered at Sceaux and planned for a future without their august father. As could be expected, the opposition to the legitimised princes kept well away from Sceaux and viewed life there with ridicule. For instance, if the Duc de Saint-Simon is to be believed, people "laughed at" the Duc and Duchesse du Maine - but considering his own deep-rooted hatred of the Duc du Maine, he is bound to have a negative perception of them.
In 1715, the hopes of her husband - and herself - were dashed when the Duc d'Orléans received the required support from the Parlement and the Peers of France, to take the Regency himself. Following this blow, the couple attempted to oust the Duc d'Orléans by the infamous Cellamare-conspiracy. Once it was discovered they were arrested but soon released again. Whatever hope they may yet have had of obtaining power was completely gone.